SCL Digital Offer lead Ayub Khan MBE looks at the future for public libraries

All libraries are digital nowadays. The shelves of books may look much the same but, behind the scenes, technology drives all that libraries do – and enhances their ‘offer’ to both physical and online customers.

I suppose the big question is – what next? Technology moves so fast it’s sometimes hard to keep up – and descriptions of the latest digital developments can sound like a foreign language. So here’s my take on what the future may hold for libraries – in simple terms.

SCL has developed six Universal Offers that set out minimum standards for the services all library authorities should offer. The Libraries Taskforce, has recently published a blog setting out how the offer manifest itself at local libraries. The Digital UO ‘recognises that the development of digital services, skills and access underpins so much of a 21st century library service. As such, it supports and enables the delivery of all of the Universal Offers.’

Pulling it all together

Not so many years ago, online library services were an add-on. There was no master plan as things moved forward – library authorities developed their own services, independently of each other. What we have now is fragmented – with no national norm or network – and it can be off-putting for customers. We have to make life easier for them.

Last year SCL commissioned BiblioCommons to do some research on digital provision – and their finding were not complimentary. They said, in general, that library IT was decades out-of-date and library websites frustrated customers. Using different systems and software made it difficult for library services to work together effectively.

SCL is currently working with Jisc and LMS providers to pilot a single digital sign-on, allowing customers to access local and national resources without having to log onto separate areas several times. Ultimately, as BiblioCommons recommended, we will need to go much further and develop a single digital platform – or national IT infrastructure – used by all library services.

Digital divide

We live in a digitally divided society. Whilst many of us use computers and mobile devices on a daily basis, there are still millions of people in the UK who have never used the internet. Libraries have responsibilities on both sides of the divide.

We must improve our offer to the tech-savvy – many of whom have better ‘kit’ at home than libraries, or their employers, can afford. People are far more mobile now – in work and leisure – and we need to meet their expectations. We’ve made a start with free wifi and charging stations, and the 3D printers some libraries have installed – in ‘maker spaces’. The future is not just about knowledge consumption, it’s about libraries becoming places where people come together to create. This presents big opportunities to cut across boundaries.

On the opposite side of the divide, it’s estimated that at least 20% of the UK population have no digital technology at home – and far more lack online skills or confidence. Yet it’s getting harder to do things offline – pay a bill, ask a question, apply for benefits or a job. SCL has successfully tendered to become part of the framework by which Government departments will commission support for the digitally excluded. We are also looking at the potential for libraries to lend out e-reading devices.

Training for staff is key to it all. SCL has already provided digital skills training to 14,000 frontline workers and around 80 senior staff have completed digital leadership courses. Partnerships – with the public and private sectors – are also key to making progress.

Fast forward

The lines between physical and online services are blurring – and the two will become indivisible. Take, for example, the popular Access to Research programme. Customers can check online what academic articles or journals are available – but they have to visit a participating library to read the full text. Another example came from Amazon which opened its first bookshop in Seattle last year. The store uses online customer reviews and ratings to promote stock on actual shelves.

Expect to hear more about augmented reality and near-field technology – both will become the norm in the not too distant future. Augmented reality basically mixes computer graphics and actual environments, for a more ‘real’ experience. Near-field technology allows two electronic devices to communicate with each other – without an internet connection – at close range. Tapping your bank card to make a ‘contactless’ payment is one example. There is great potential for libraries to capitalise on this.

Believe it or not, the idea to create a People’s Network of public computers dates back to the 20th century. Completed on time and within budget, the project changed libraries. We need to be ready for the next game-changer. Speaking at a conference earlier this year Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council, said it’s not just about corporate IT – in public services we all need to be digital leaders.


Our profession tends to be big on tradition, and rightly so – libraries have a long and proud heritage. Technology is not the enemy of tradition. Digital developments will enable us to provide more and better services to all sectors of society, including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged amongst us. Meeting the needs of the digitally-excluded has to be a top priority.

Ayub Khan
Warwickshire Libraries – Digital lead for SCL